Optics vs. Metrics: a Communal Leadership Imperative

by Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick

Over the past decade we have witnessed a proliferation of articles, papers, editorials, and conversation relating to the critical importance of Jewish communal leadership and its relationship to the future vitality and viability of our Jewish community and its institutions.

This communal obsession is anchored in the unchallenged belief that effective leadership molds and shapes the very fabric of our Jewish community and society. It also validates the widely accepted notion that high quality and performing leadership are a sine qua non for institutional effectiveness.

Although this belief and understanding is embraced by many on an intellectual level, our Jewish community politic suggests a gap between what we view as “effective” leadership and the realities of how these understandings play themselves out in Board rooms, executive suites and in many a parking-lot of Jewish communal institutions.

This reality is experienced throughout the Jewish communal world to the extent that we have become somewhat immune to what true vision-driven leadership is, could be and should be.

All too often, our Jewish communal institutions get caught up in the moment, resulting in reactive policies, thinking, and practices, as opposed to proactive and foresighted strategic thinking and leadership. As a result, many of the actions taken by many of our institutions are temporary in nature and fall prey to groupthink, lack of consensus building and strategic sustainability. Yes, there will be times of crisis when communal/institutional triage is essential. It is our communal responsibility to jump into the fray and respond boldly and creatively to these exigencies. But, as we well know, institutions that only respond to the crisis du jour, hardly ever have the privilege or opportunity to develop inspiring strategic visions which are sustainable and truly impactful over an extended period of time.

What is it out about our human condition that forces an increasing number of Jewish communal institutions to mistake leadership “optics” and style over substance and true content (“metrics”)? Why are so many of our institutions not necessarily experiencing the rapid growth in strategic vision-driven leadership and thinking on the professional and lay levels to the extent that their supporters, clients and investors demand. What is it about the culture of many of our Jewish communal institutions that force them to myopically focus on style (optics) over substance, at the risk of not being able to advance and inspire our next generation of future leaders?

Creating institutional “buzz,” glitz and fanfare are at times important and even essential in order to generate initial attention and interest. However, we also know that “all sizzle with no stake” over an extended period of time gives rise to “optic-focused” rather than “metric-focused” perception and attention, which fades fast over a period of time and eventually impacts negatively on that institution.

One of the risks we face when searching for Jewish communal professional and lay leadership is our inability as a collective to differentiate between good-to-excellent “leadership” and good-to-excellent “management.” Yes, both of these attributes are imperative in order to lead our institutions. However, when we mistake only “doing things right” (read managing) for “doing the right things” (read leadership), we create communal and institutional environments and cultures which will not survive 21st century leadership standards, expectations and requirements. As a result, we pay a very high and costly price. One-shot conferences and seminars, institutes and conversations may indeed remind and even inspire us about what high quality professional and lay leadership is all about. However, the true test for these costly endeavors will be our ability, capacity and true willingness to engage in strategic implementation and execution – requiring an often difficult realignment of institutional policy, expectations, requirements and resources deeply anchored in the Jewish mission and vision of an institution.

So many of our institutions struggle with painful senior executive staff turnover, time-consuming executive search processes as well as with extremely difficult board nominating committee processes – all of which result in further frustration and compromises in institutional standards. This is not to suggest the existence of institutions that have truly succeeded in attracting and retaining high caliber lay and professional leadership. However, as a collective we have not fully succeeded primarily due to a lack of clarity of purpose and articulation regarding respective and differentiated roles, responsibilities, expectations and requirements … all of which must be based upon best practice supported by a compelling and inspiring strategic alignment and realignment of resources with an institution’s mission and vision.

Over 90% of non-profit strategic plans and visions fail, due to the inability to implement or execute plans effectively. This failure is based on the inability of institutions to commit themselves to a strategic realignment of the organization’s thinking and resources necessary for effective and successful implementation. This reality, in turn, suggests the need to create a leadership paradigm shift which promotes, supports, and celebrates institutional change over an extended period of time.

We must challenge our institutions and their leadership to create new and meaningful leadership value propositions. By doing so, we can create tremendous synergy, promise and opportunity. Although it will require hard work, it is doable and achievable.

A possible path for consideration and exploration may include the adoption and integration of Leadership-Based Models which have proven to enhance both the quality and quantity of institutional impact and sustainability via strong leadership involvement.

Several opportunities may include, but not be limited to:

  • The creation of specific lay and professional performance norms and standards based upon the organization’s strategic vision and mission;
  • The identification and engagement of high caliber lay and professional leadership who clearly understand, support and embrace a shared strategic direction, vision and mission;
  • The establishment of institutional policies that are strategic and clearly understood by all members of the institution; and are developed and implemented in accordance with clearly articulated bylaws and governance guidelines;
  • The creation of strategic plans which demand and support a strategic implementation/execution plan;
  • A sharp focus on programmatic and policy-driven content and substance; not solely based upon political expediency, but rather on what is in the best interest of the community;
  • The conscious and ongoing utilization of values, beliefs and principles which are deeply embedded in Jewish thought, reflection and analysis;
  • A continuous cultural commitment to ensuring the highest levels of professional and lay performance and communal responsiveness (including the modification, elimination or reimagining structural and programmatic directions), and
  • The creation and identification of deliverables which are transparent, inspiring, clear and measurable.
  • The creation of a Jewish communal culture that embraces and promotes the concept of doing the right things as opposed to only doing things right.

In order for Leadership-Based Models to succeed, it is imperative that there be conscious leadership awareness and an accepted notion that the status quo is not an option. Twenty-first century Jewish communal leadership requirements, and expectations demand 21st century leadership responses! Then and only then can we begin to develop a Jewish communal leadership paradigm and culture which our community rightfully deserves.

If we sincerely believe in the concept of “leadership leads” then we must draw that fine, albeit difficult balance between optics and metrics with the hope and promise that we can create and sustain strong and effective institutions that will make a difference for future generations – let’s at least begin that process … time is truly running out.

Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick is President/CEO Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education Miami.